Text and photos by Peter Vankevich
Heading out of Oyster Creek in a 20-foot skiff with commercial fisherman Morty Gaskill, it is a cool November morning.
After 10 minutes, he slows down about three miles into the sound. Morty, 20, has had a commercial fishing license since he was 9. Descending from a long line of Ocracoke watermen, he learned how to fish from his father, James Barrie Gaskill.
In 2006, the Ocracoke Observer profiled him as a 12-year-old commercial fisherman.
A graduate of the prestigious North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, he is taking a break from his studies at North Carolina State University to earn some money and reflect on the direction of his major which has been marine fisheries science.
With the familiar silhouette of the village and its prominent water tower in the background, we approach an orange buoy with a painted G indicating one of his seven nets.
Other than Morty’s buoys, there are no others that can be seen.
This is definitely a one-man operation with little room at the stern as he hauls the 100-yard long nets in, taking the fish caught by their gills, throwing the keepers into a large bucket and tossing the others back.
The first net brings in only a few menhaden—small fish that Morty will use for bait in his crab pots.
The next net has more menhaden plus a few black drum that were too small and were released alive.
By the fourth net, some gray trout start to show up as well as a couple of blue fish. Both are keepers.
“This is pretty much the end of the blue fish season,” he explained. “So I’m not surprised to see so few of them.”
After checking three of his seven nets, it becomes apparent that this will not be a big-catch morning.
“When there are big storms with high winds like two nights earlier, the tumultuous water conditions may make the fish less mobile and less likely to be caught,” he says.
A couple of northern sea robins are in the next net and tossed back. This is a cold water fish and at the end of its southern range and not that common around the waters of Ocracoke. Although interesting to look at, they are not commercially valuable.
Great black-backed gulls and brown pelicans start to gather, floating near the boat in hopes of getting some of the tossed fish.
There are no sea jellies in the nets. “They can be a problem in the spring when the stinging sea nettles enter the sound. This time of year, I would expect the nontoxic cannonball jellies.”
The next net has several sea mullets, also known as whiting, which he keeps.
He will deliver his catch to the Ocracoke Seafood Company’s fish house which is run by the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association (OWWA). The fish house, located along Irvin Garrish Highway in the village, has both a wholesale and retail component.
The boat fills with the seven nets and we head back to Oyster Creek. The day’s catch will be taken to the fish house in his pickup truck.
Later in the afternoon, he will head out again to reset them. The time on water was just a couple of hours. In calm weather like today, it is quite pleasant. “It’s a lot tougher when the winds exceed 20 knots,” he said.
“Overall, I’ve been happy with what I’ve earned this fall, especially when I’ve been able to use the larger mesh nets that can catch the high-priced flounder and red drum,” he said.
Red drum is a bycatch (an unintentional catch) fish with certain restrictions as to how many he is allowed to harvest on a given day.
Today he uses the smaller 3 ½-inch mesh nets.
The larger sized ones were under a restriction for about 10 days around this time due to interactions with sea turtles.
Both a student of marine fisheries and a seasoned watermen, Morty says that he agrees “with what many fishermen
have said, there are plenty of red drum and flounder in the Pamlico Sound right now. As for the other species, my catch this season was pretty much what I expected.”
It was a pleasure to get an insight into a typical day with the young Ocracoke waterman, and a comfort to see the younger generations carrying forth with this vital service to our community.